Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results

Each year, hundreds of thousands of charities raise billions of dollars to fund their efforts to serve the less fortunate. But the efforts of a vast number of these charities — indeed, most of them, says Robert D. Lupton — may actually be hurting those they aim to help. And charity that does more harm than good is definitely not better than no charity at all.

In Charity Detox, Lupton, the founder of Atlanta-based FCS Urban Ministries and the author of the 2011 book Toxic Charity, explores and tries to answer the question: "What would charity look like if we cared about results?" But where Lupton's earlier book exposed what he calls "the dirty little secret that on-the-ground charity workers know all too well but are loath to admit" — namely, that most anti-poverty programs not only fail to end the cycle of poverty, they perpetuate it by creating dependency — here he argues that even though charitable giving almost always makes donors feel good, the negative impact of such giving on the poor cannot be ignored. The question, then, is how can charities "detoxify" themselves so that they truly help those in need?

"The fact is," Lupton writes, "we cannot serve others out of poverty." What people living in poverty need, instead, are living-wage jobs and healthy, thriving communities. And that requires two things: economic and community development. Lupton notes that one obstacle to reforming the traditional model of "pure philanthropy" are churches, which, he argues, have been at the vanguard of the "compassion industry," dispensing "unexamined charity...that fails to ask the hard questions about outcomes." Too often, he argues, charity in the United States looks like disaster relief in its inability to distinguish between a crisis and chronic need. In contrast, when the charities Lupton was involved with in Atlanta began to actually measure outcomes and not outputs, both he and those charities were transformed for the simple reason that measuring outcomes forces nonprofits and their funders to focus on specific goals rather than a diffuse "serve-the-neighborhood" approach. The book then goes on to describe how a range of organizations and initiatives, from foodbanks and co-ops, to Christian ministries, to urban development projects, adapted their operations not only to create sustainable opportunities for the poor but also to build trust and dignity among the people they served.

In Lupton's view, the best way to accomplish that is through "comprehensive community development" — an approach requiring fundamental changes not only in organizations but in the people who work for them. What kind of change? First, charities and nonprofits need to leverage the business expertise of their supporters to accurately measure return on their charitable activities. While lots of people in nonprofits and faith-based organizations tend to view wealth and the profit motive with suspicion, he writes, real economic development is impossible without profit-making enterprises. Accordingly, nonprofits that can sustain themselves through entrepreneurial and/or earned-income activities have a better chance of creating larger, longer-term impact than those who reject or shy away from such activities. What's more, this focus on business discipline should extend to both internal operations and operating models. And there's an added benefit: organizations that operate successful businesses are in a position to provide economic opportunities, in the form of jobs, to people in the community. Offering competitive pay and health and educational benefits to one's employees is an element of what Lupton describes as doing business well, and, in turn, can help lift those employees and their families out of poverty. 

The second pillar of Lupton's model is a focus on how charity workers can advance an organization's mission through their personal choices. Lupton notes how many organizations, whether through education or job training, often serve to facilitate the outward migration of a community's best and brightest, eroding the already depleted social capital in those communities. To create more viable, stable communities, Lupton believes social changemakers should live where they work and focus on what he calls the "three Rs of community development": re-neighboring, reconciliation, and redistribution. Working to create healthy mixed-income neighborhoods not only provides opportunity to local residents through local investment, he argues, it also helps to "re-weave" the social fabric of the community through an infusion of resources, ideas, and civic engagement. Not that it's easy. Such an approach requires the employees of charities and faith-based groups to reach across race, class, and cultural lines; to respect and trust their neighbors; and to bridge the gap between rich and poor through "authentic relationships" that result in the sharing of talents and resources.

The third pillar of Lupton's "de-toxification" approach is to keep the focus on the people who are being helped. "When low-income residents are included in the planning, implementation, and ongoing [efforts to revive their] neighborhood," he writes, "they become...beneficiaries rather than...victims."

One aspect of Lupton's book that is difficult to reconcile with its prescriptions, however, is his failure to distinguish nonprofit business models from the nonprofit value proposition. Lupton is right to assert that foodbanks create dependency and undermine the dignity of the poor. But he is too willing to extrapolate from that point to argue that the traditional model of charity is untenable. Yes, financial sustainability is, or should be, an element of any social change effort. But it is not a necessary precondition of such efforts or even an essential ingredient. In cases where social entrepreneurs and innovators are truly aiming to address a need in a unique way, philanthropists should not worry about the sustainability of the effort, so long as the underlying approach is consistent with an approach that empowers the intended beneficiaries of the effort.

That said, Charity Detox is an excellent resource for those truly looking to "move the needle" on poverty in disadvantaged communities. And it challenges social entrepreneurs and funders to rethink what they know about charity work. If it forces the rest of us to examine our assumptions about poverty and how it should be addressed, then Lupton has achieved his objective.

Chicago-based Alex Schoemann works for Deloitte in its nonprofit audit practice and runs an impact measuring service for nonprofits and foundations.